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Origins of the blues

African slaves brought their musical traditions with them when they were transported to work in the North American colonies. Early types of African American music included spirituals (religious songs using vocal harmony) and work songs.

Work songs were sung rhythmically in time with the task being done. They used call and response in which phrases from a lead singer were followed by the others. African music combined with the folk music of the white European settlers to produce new styles of music.

The blues emerged towards the end of the 19th century. This early style of blues was known as country blues and was usually a solo singer accompanied on guitar or piano sometimes with added harmonica or drums. Well-known country blues musicians include Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson.

Most blues songs:

  • have four beats in a bar
  • are built on the 12-bar blues form
  • use three four-bar phrases

The most common chord structure uses three chords – the tonic (chord I), the subdominant (chord IV) and the dominant (chord V). In the key of C this would be:


Phrase 1C (tonic)C (tonic)C (tonic)C (tonic)
Phrase 2F (subdominant)F (subdominant)C (tonic)C (tonic)
Phrase 3G (dominant)F (subdominant) or G (dominant)C (tonic)C (tonic)

There are many variations on the above structure. Sometimes 7th chords are used (the same chords with an added 7th). The 12-bar blues form the basis of R 'n' B (rhythm and blues), rock ’n' roll and jazz.

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